Coping with death is something unique and personal. It’s always different, even when the same person experiences it more than once. In this difficult time, people need their friends and family members more than ever. They may not be very communicative, and they may not be very pleasant, as they’re likely to have a lot of strong emotions to deal with, but it’s important for them to know that you care and that, if called upon, you will be there to provide support.
Listen with an open mind
Because experiences of grief are different, it’s important not to assume that you know what the bereaved person is going through. Don’t tell them that you know how they feel, even if your own situation seems very similar. Be patient with them and understand that the grieving process can involve anger, sorrow and the sharing of fond memories.
Survivors may also feel a strong sense of guilt, which doesn’t mean that they’ve done anything wrong. All of these emotions are legitimate and important to finding eventual peace. In providing support, your role is to listen and be accepting. Remember that if you are confronted with behavior that you find difficult to accept, it will probably pass before long.
Offer help with planning the funeral
Dealing with all this emotional chaos can make it very difficult to tackle pressing practical matters. Though it’s important to respect the wishes of the dead person and the bereaved, and avoid making pushy suggestions about the funeral, it can really help to offer your assistance in organizing it. This could involve anything from dealing directly with burial or cremation services to making the arrangements for a memorial service, ensuring that the right flowers are chosen and the right music is played.
Often, there’s a lot of work to be done in contacting old friends and distant relatives to invite them along, and this can be emotionally draining for the bereaved, so if you can handle it with due sensitivity, it’s a good place to offer your assistance.
Offer help with forms and finance
Death inevitably involves a lot of paperwork, both for the funeral and for the winding up of the deceased’s affairs. This can involve answering the same very personal questions again and again, and focusing a lot on relationships that are painful for the bereaved person to think about.
It’s an area where it can really help for somebody else to step in. If you do this, bear in mind that you will usually need access to a lot of the deceased person’s files to process the various forms that need to be dealt with. You’ll still need to get information from the bereaved person from time to time, so discuss the least upsetting way that you can go about this.
Make space for stories
When the bereaved person feels ready to start accepting that their loved one is gone and find new ways to engage with what remains, telling stories becomes an important means of shifting focus from the present to the past. This can involve returning to the same stories again and again, partly as a way of searching for meaning in memory, so be patient and try to keep listening attentively even to what you’ve heard before. Be ready to share your own stories if you have them. Photographs and videos can often help with this process, as can visits to places where time was spent together.
Be there for the long haul
There’s no time limit on grief. Some people never really get over the loss of those they’ve loved. Others might truly believe that they’re okay but then find themselves going to pieces when a birthday or anniversary arrives. If you’re going to be supportive, you need to bear in mind that it could be a long process, and try to identify the times when you’re most likely to be needed. As time goes on, it is likely to get easier, and you can gradually start to offer different kinds of social opportunity to the bereaved person, making it easier to re-engage with the wider world.
Being there for someone in grief isn’t an easy task, and you should make sure that you too have emotional support for when it’s needed. It is, however, one of the most valuable things that you can do for those you care about. Death is difficult for us all, but it’s in our friendship and care for one another that we can discover what really matters about life.